Action-packed biography of Ukraine’s leader
Millions who have admired Volodymyr Zelensky’s defiance during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will learn much from this up-to-date biography of the Ukrainian President. Zelensky’s life to date has been packed with drama and action.
By the age of 20, the Jewish boy from the provincialÂ town of Kryvyi Rih had become a star of the stage.
- At 30, he headed a multimillion-dollar TV company.
- At 40, he took on Ukraine’s corrupt political and businessÂ elite in a TV drama where he played a history teacher who becomes President.Â
- Then he launched a real-life political party named after the TV show, won a landslide victory and became Ukraine’s real President.
- When Russian troops flooded across the border, Zelensky refused Western offers to leave Kyiv. He has marshalled Ukraine’s resistanceÂ and successfully obtained Western missile systems and anti-tank weapons.
He said: ‘If I am elected, they will first sling mud at me.Â Then they will learn to respect me. And finally cry whenÂ I leave.’
Covering Zelensky’s background and bustling TV careerÂ through to his first, controversial years in office toÂ Russia’s full-scale blitzkrieg, ZelenskyÂ is written by a long-standing Russia and Ukraine reporter and a Russian- and Ukrainian speaking researcher.
It’s a pithy biography of Zelensky for anyone who wantsÂ to understand Ukraine’s charismatic head of state, hisÂ complex country, and its vexed relationship with Russia.
Covering Zelensky’s life from his childhood to the Ukrainian presidency, Zelensky deals with: his background in a Russian-speaking region of Ukraine; his early career in TV taking part in KVN talent competitions; his rise through the Ukrainian and Russian television industry; and his breakthrough moment inÂ the TV series Servant of the People playing a teacher, VasylÂ Holoborodko, who dreams of reforming Ukraine and ending its corruption.
The show becomes a reality and Zelensky and his party, called Servant of the People, take power. Zelensky’s presidency is dogged by controversy concerning his attempts to curry favour with the US President Donald Trump and the offshoring of tens of millions of dollars (used to buy luxury property in London). Zelensky battles political rivals and takes onÂ powerful vested interests in Europe’s second-largest country – beforeÂ fighting a superpower in a fight most assume Ukraine will quickly lose (but they don’t).
Zelensky: Ukraine’s President and His Country is the first major biography of Ukraine’s leader written for a Western audience. Told with flair and authority, it is the gripping story of oneÂ of the most admired and inspirational leaders in the world.
About the authors
STEVEN DERIX is a journalist at the prestigious Dutch newspaper NRC. Together with Dolf de Groot he wrote BloodÂ Brothers: The Downfall of Team Rabobank, which uncoveredÂ Michael Boogerd’s doping fraud. From 2014 to 2020 he was NRC correspondent for Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
MARINA SHELKUNOVA studied journalism and was a researcher and coordinator forÂ NRCÂ andÂ De Standaard.
EXTRACT: Start of first chapter
Vladimir Putin rarely underestimates his opponent.Â At the KGB Academy in Leningrad, he learned theÂ meticulous art of profiling ‘targets’ of the service, whetherÂ they were Russian dissidents or East German CommunistÂ apparatchiks.
Before meeting with anybody, Putin first analyses theirÂ strengths and weaknesses. During his first visit to the UnitedÂ States, he wound President George W. Bush around his littleÂ finger, with pious tales of his christening in the RussianÂ Orthodox Church. Afterwards, an obviously charmed BushÂ told of how he had looked into the ‘soul’ of the former KGBÂ officer. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visitedÂ Sochi in 2007 to discuss energy policy, Putin had his blackÂ labrador Konni brought in. Merkel – who is terrified ofÂ dogs – dared not budge an inch, and Putin dominated theÂ conversation.
Vladimir Putin also carefully considers way he talks aboutÂ people. The Russian President is only too aware of the politicalÂ appeal of Alexey Navalny, and will therefore never allow theÂ name of the opposition leader to cross his lips – not even sinceÂ Navalny’s incarceration in January 2021. Putin’s spokesperson,Â Dmitri Peskov, consistently refers to Navalny as ‘that blogger.’
In April 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected as the sixthÂ President of Ukraine, with nearly three-quarters of the vote.
One month later, the Russian President attended the WorldÂ Economic Forum in St. Petersburg. It had been five years sinceÂ Russia’s annexation of Crimea but daily skirmishes betweenÂ the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists were stillÂ commonplace in eastern Ukraine.
‘Why did you not congratulate Volodymyr Zelenksy when heÂ became President?’ asked the interviewer.
Putin breathed a heavy sigh. The Russian officials and businessÂ magnates in the room playfully nudged one another: this wasÂ going to be good.
‘You know,’ said Putin, ‘he is still pushing a certain rhetoric.Â He labels us “enemies” and “aggressors.” Perhaps he should thinkÂ about what he really wants to achieve, what he wants to do.’Â
Putin had still not once uttered the name ‘Zelensky.’
‘You are the President of a world power,’ the interviewerÂ fawned, ‘and right now, he is incredibly popular in his country.Â Both of you could start with a clean slate. Even a small gestureÂ might completely change the course of world history. Why notÂ simply arrange a meeting?’
Putin gave the enormous hall an almost pitying look, andÂ waited until the sniggering from the officials and businesspeopleÂ had died down.
‘Did I say “no”?’ replied Putin. With a snide grin, he added:
‘Nobody has invited me.’
‘Are you prepared to meet with him?’
Putin now looked genuinely amused. ‘Listen, I do not knowÂ this man. I hope that we can meet one day. As far as I can tell,Â he’s amazing at what he does, he’s a marvellous actor.’
Laughter and generous applause filled the room.
Putin continued: ‘But seriously: it’s one thing to play aÂ person, but quite another thing to be that person.’